Beguiled by Botswana: 'When Mombo bites, she bites hard!'
A faint rustling disturbs me first, then I sense the presence of something heavy; and even though the animal is outside my tent, I can tell from the sounds emanating in the dark, that this is not a small domestic pet by any stretch of the imagination.
Next morning I mention my nocturnal visitor to my guide, the well named Brave, who casually replies "Oh yes, the hippos came up from the lake last night".
Oh yes, I'm definitely on safari!
In my travels down the years I've found it usually takes a long time to get to paradise and the voyage to Botswana has more than proved the point. As my chemist observed when I stocked up on malaria tablets and insect repellent, "You're going to one of those places where the planes get smaller and the journeys shorter". Correct. It takes four flights and a dusty drive to get me to my first stop, Qorokwe, poetically named after its location, 'where the buffalo broke through the bush into the water', and situated in the Okavango Delta in the north of the country.
Botswana, until gaining its independence in 1966 a British protectorate called Bechuanaland, sits on top of South Africa and is bordered by Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Roughly the size of France, it has room for the Kalahari Desert and the Makgadikgadi Pan, the largest salt flats in the world. Small wonder it's something of a second home to nature-loving Prince Harry.
This brand new camp opened in December and is part of the Wilderness Safari group, one of the continent's leading operators with lodges in eight African countries; it has a distinctly modern feel and the eight tented suites (there's also a family unit) are built on wooden platforms with metal and canvas frames. The public areas - dining room, bar, library and lounge - are all fashioned from wood and appear to float above the lagoon where, particularly if you use the high-powered telescope on the main deck, you can see my friends the hippos bathing. There's also an infinity pool where I spend a pleasant hour reading and swimming.
Over lunch with Danny Crous, Qorokwe's genial manager, I hear how the vibe of this camp is determinedly unstuffy and laissez-faire. "Game is game at the end of the day," Danny tells me, explaining how his mission here is to create a homely feel and to do something different. With Qorokwe in its infancy, he has plans to lay on special surprises: bush dinners, runaway picnics and interactive dining where you make your own pizza, in addition to the traditional safari fare of game drives and brai (barbecue) nights.
The relaxed atmosphere is evident next morning at 5am where, by the romantic light of oil lamps, guides and guests tuck into coffee and muffins before the main event - the dawn drive. Within moments of setting off, we see impala, elephants, giraffes and, delightful in the early morning light, a dazzle of zebras.
The big thing about safari in Botswana is the fact that it never gets overcrowded: here on the Moremi Plains, three jeeps roam over 26,000 hectares. Later, like a scene out of Mogambo, a sextet of New Yorkers come across an extraordinary standoff - a pride of lions have spotted an unfortunate warthog and are stalking him (or her) with deadly intent. But buffalo are also in the area and are on the case trying to protect poor Pumba. However, precious little stands between a lion and his dinner. I'm more than happy not to witness the actual kill and the Americans are shaken when we happen upon them. It's strangely peaceful though as we park right beside the pride and listen to the crunch of teeth on bone while the African sun sets with its customary drama and beauty.
A few days later I have a more benign encounter with these big cats when we come across a pair of lionesses nursing their four cubs. In fact we get so close we can hear the babies suckling. Pure magic. This is one of Botswana's many charms. Staying in private concessions allows us to drive off road and get really up close and personal with the wildlife.
I've been lucky enough to go on safari before in South Africa and Kenya and while both were sublime experiences, this is the closest I've ever got to nature, and truly it is 'red in tooth and claw'.
As well as our game drives, we enjoy a sighting on water. In a mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe, we glide through banks of water lilies: I feel like I'm living in a Monet painting. Our presence disturbs the water buffalo who disperse quickly but in the distance (yet more) hippos are basking. We toast them with sundowners of Hendrick's gin and tonic. An important note re these river horses (as they're also known) - never, ever get between them and the water.
I love listening to the guides' lore of the wild; for example, how baboons are known as the traitors of the bush. Apparently these crazy creatures befriend the impalas, those dainty antelopes who dance about the place like a silky corps de ballet. As baboons can climb, they act as lookout for approaching predators. So far, so friendly; however when baby impala are born, they are eaten by the treacherous primates.
There's plenty of monkey business in my next billet, Mombo, where the baboons take over my deck, dance on the roof, splash in the pool and generally cause gorgeous chaos. They're one of many reasons to adore Mombo, or oh Mombo as I renamed it; from anyone I told I was going there, the refrain was always the same: oh Mombo they sighed wistfully as a soft look entered their eyes. A place of legend; the top luxury lodge in Botswana; the mother of all camps - in fact I thought everyone was being a bit over the top. And then I went there.
On arrival I'm met by a smiling quartet of staff, welcoming me like I'm the Queen of Sheba and plying me with wet flannels and a cold Martini.
Both are vital: March is their summer and it's a very hot 34 degrees. Opened 30 years ago, Mombo is located on Chief's Island, (considered one of the premier game viewing areas in the world) and was given a complete rebuild last year; for its duration they quite literally set up temporary camp down the road, lest anyone be without their dose of Mombo for a nano second. A couple of wealthy German sisters who visit four times a year, have apps on their mobile phones, showing how many days will elapse until they return to these Elysian Fields.
My 'tent' comprises sitting room, huge bedroom and a spacious en suite with indoor and outdoor showers. Outside the large double deck has a plunge pool and day bed and it's wonderful before afternoon tea and the evening game drive to lie there reading and gazing at the savannah where several elephants wander back and forth.
The latter is another good reason to visit. My guide Yompy tells me the pachyderm is his spirit animal. Mine too; I love their intelligence, loyalty and the courage and dignity with which they go off to die alone. And, my family would add, I can relate to their elephantine memory. There are more African elephants here than anywhere else in the world. In fact one of the country's great attractions is the proliferation of game. Thanks to Botswana's first rate conservation policies, they have epic numbers of big cats as well as bountiful herds of the beleaguered black and white rhinos. Yompy and I spend hours searching and eventually a trio - Daddy, Mummy and Baby white rhino - trundle past us through the veldt.
This is safari at its most luxurious, so high end I could get altitude sickness. I even have my own butler, Percy, who makes a fabulous cocktail and greets all my observations with the same word: awesome. I've always found Africa awesome. But for its exceptional game viewing, memorable people and extraordinary beauty, Mombo is indeed something else entirely. I'll leave the last word to Yompy: "When Mombo bites, she bites hard."
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
Delights of the delta
Okavango — the only island delta in the world — is a rich ecosystem of wetlands, islets and palm groves, teeming with wildlife. Known as Africa’s last Eden, it is one of the continent’s seven natural wonders.
Birds in paradise
Ornithologists take note: Botswana is birders’ heaven with over 550 species recorded. A stunningly diverse avian array includes hornbills, herons, egrets, shrikes, warblers, vultures, larks, owls and eagles.
Mahlatini Luxury Travel (01 906 1883; mahlatini.com) offers a four-night luxury holiday at Wilderness Safaris Qorokwe Camp and Mombo Camp (two nights at each camp) from €7,050 per person sharing on an all-inclusive basis.
The price includes international flights from Dublin, light aircraft and road transfers and scheduled safari activities. See wilderness-safaris.com.
Sunday Indo Living